BEIJING, May 18 (Reuters) - More than 3,000 Chinese nationals have been evacuated from Vietnam, state news agency Xinhua said on Sunday, following deadly rioting that stemmed from an outpouring of rage over Chinese oil drilling in a disputed area of the South China Sea.
The violence was triggered by China's positioning of a $1 billion oil rig in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi, a move described by the United States as provocative. It is the worst breakdown in ties between the two Communist neighbours since a short border war in 1979.
The evacuation followed days of clashes between Vietnamese rioters and Chinese workers. Crowds of thousands massed as rioters turned against Chinese workers and Chinese-owned businesses, or those thought to be Chinese, smashing windows, gates and walls and torching vehicles and factories.
The trouble broke out in Vietnam's south on Tuesday after nationalist rage boiled over during protests around industrial parks near Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Two Chinese nationals were killed in the violence and more than 100 others injured, Xinhua said, citing China's foreign ministry.
China is to send five ships to Vietnam on Sunday to evacuate more Chinese nationals, Xinhua said, citing the transport ministry In Beijing.
Sixteen critically injured Chinese nationals were evacuated from Vietnam early on Sunday aboard a chartered medical flight arranged by the Chinese government, the foreign ministry said in a separate statement.
Workers from the China 19th Metallurgical Corporation, a contractor for an iron and steel plant being built by Formosa Plastics Group, Taiwan's biggest investor in Vietnam, were evacuated back to China early on Sunday, Xinhua said.
On Saturday, China's Foreign Ministry advised Chinese nationals to hold off from traveling to Vietnam and told its citizens in Vietnam to avoid leaving their premises.
Separately, China's Spring and Autumn Airline said it plans to suspend all charter flights from Shanghai to Vietnam from Monday, according to Xinhua.
The airline said it would suspend nine flights carrying 350 passengers to Vietnam over the next month.
Also on Saturday, China's Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang that he strongly condemned the violent attacks against Chinese nationals and companies in Vietnam.
Gao called on Hanoi to "improve the country's trade and investment environment", the commerce ministry said on Saturday.
In a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao, Gao also made "solemn representations" to Vietnam and urged authorities to "bring the relevant issues under control" and create a favorable environment for trade and investment.
Vietnam's lead police investigator has defended security forces and has said "illegal acts" would not be tolerated. Hoang Kong Tu has said adequate measures would be taken to make sure there is no repeat of the violence. (Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Paul Tait)